Expert Commentary

Memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures

2013 study from Harvard University exploring techniques for improving online learning and education.

The rise of online education and massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is bringing about a fundamental reassessment of how learning should be conducted in a digital age, forcing institutions to rethink the role of both teacher and student and the very idea of a “classroom.” Although online resources have the potential to make the education experience richer, in practice consuming online lectures can lead to mind-wandering, distraction, boredom and, ultimately, a failure to complete courses and achieve educational goals.

A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “Interpolated Memory Tests Reduce Mind Wandering and Improve Learning of Online Lectures,” analyzed two experiments on a group of 80 students to see how periodic quizzing during online academic lectures could improve the educational experience. The research psychologists, from Harvard University, asked the test subjects to watch a 21-minute lecture as part of a statistics course; the lecture was divided up into four segments, with a brief set of tests in between each segment. The students were asked to report how frequently their minds wandered, as well as their level of anxiety as they approached a final test of the material.

The study’s findings include:

  • In the first experiment, one group of students was tested after every segment, while another was tested only after the fourth segment. Those with more frequent testing experienced “significantly fewer bouts of mind wandering”; in addition, the evidence for this group “indicated that the occurrence of mind wandering was significantly less likely to have increased as the lecture progressed.”
  • “Testing for lecture segments [one to three] was associated with improved learning of the fourth lecture segment. Students in the tested group correctly answered significantly more questions about the fourth lecture segment than students in the nontested group.”
  • In the second experiment, researchers added more direct measures of mind-wandering; they also designed an aspect of the experiment to ensure that the learning benefits of testing are truly associated with better attention to the lecture, and not just with exposure to more study materials. The results suggest that “the presence of tests, and not merely the re-exposure to study materials that accompanies tests, encouraged students to attend to lecture content in a manner that reduced mind wandering, increased note taking and facilitated learning.”
  • The students who took the more-frequent tests “reported significantly lower levels of anxiety toward the final cumulative test” and their final test results suggested that they retained more information.

“Recent research in cognitive psychology suggests that, when implemented appropriately, tests can be used to significantly enhance learning,” the researchers conclude. “The present results demonstrate one such function of testing and highlight the specific cognitive mechanism by which testing can facilitate learning. In particular, testing can be used to help students sustain attention to lecture content in a manner that discourages task-irrelevant (mind wandering) and encourages task-relevant (note taking) activities, and hence improves learning.”

Tags: higher education, youth